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'That night I couldn't sleep thinking about it. It lit a fire in me and I couldn't quench it'

Michael Fennelly explains what attracted him to the Offaly hurling job.

WHEN HIS EIGHT-month old baby, PhD studies, lecturing job and playing career with the All-Ireland club champions are factored into the equation, it’s a wonder Michael Fennelly has any spare time on his hands – let alone enough to take on the Offaly senior hurling job.

michael-fennelly-unveiled-as-new-offaly-senior-hurling-manager Michael Fennelly at his unveiling as the new Offaly senior hurling manager at the GAA Faithful Fields Offaly Centre of Excellence. Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

The eight-time All-Ireland winner was introduced to the media at the Faithful Fields training centre yesterday and he spoke at length about what led to him taking charge of a county that have suffered a worrying dip in fortunes over the past few seasons.

He only retired from Kilkenny duties at the end of the 2017 season after an injury-ravaged end to his career. At 34 he is still young to be the manager of a senior side, even if Offaly will begin life under Fennelly in the Christy Ring Cup – hurling’s third tier – next season.

The Ballyhale native admitted that when he was first sounded out by the Offaly county board, his interest levels were not high.

“I suppose at first I wasn’t really in that position I thought because I was doing a PhD and I had other bits and pieces going on and I was still playing club,” he said.

But then that night I couldn’t sleep thinking about it. I was thinking about the backroom team and what I’d do. I said I’d meet the lads either way and see what their vision was and what their direction was.”

Fennelly’s backroom team has yet to be confirmed, but it will include an Offaly native “who has their finger on the pulse in terms of the knowledge of hurlers”. He’ll also bring in an experienced lieutenant from Kilkenny who’ll give observations “in terms of what I am doing well and what I’m not doing well.”

“A mixture of Offaly, maybe a bit of Kilkenny and maybe another person from another county,” he said.

It is my first year going into management and I will make a lot of mistakes. I suppose as someone said lately, if you are making mistakes – make them early and learn from the past. So that’s the way I’m looking at things.

“But I’m very open minded, I’m going to bring hopefully a bit of experience as well into this setup because that will be needed.”

He’s had other offers and says he came close to taking on the Carlow camogie side last year.

“I want to work with a group of players who want to achieve what they can and to get the most out of them in every component of the game,” he explained.

“I’ve never really focused on looking for the best team, or looked for the highest level of competition, if you get a group of players that are willing to go players, for me, that’s satisfaction and helping people to achieve their potential.”

michael-fennelly-unveiled-as-new-offaly-senior-hurling-manager Michael Fennelly speaks to journalists during his unveiling. Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

Fennelly spoke with the county board about “a couple of things that happened” in the county over the past few years and outlined his vision for the role. Despite having a young family at home and his part-time doctorate studies in leadership and coaching at Maynooth University, Fennelly was up for the challenge.

“The PhD is probably the big thing. And I have an eight-month-old at home. I was thinking to myself, next year will I take it a bit easy, focus on that, bit of lecturing as well.

“So I was busy enough as it is. But I love challenges, I love the sporting and the coaching side of it, talking to different people about it. My partner is Anthony Cunningham in a kind of leadership business that we have.

“I love talking to him about the whole Roscommon thing and meeting other managers. I’d know John Meyler down in Cork as well. So it came across the table to me and lit a fire in me and I suppose I couldn’t quench it, that was the thing.

“That’s really where it’s at. I got offered one or two other jobs as well but distance was a problem. They were probably not what I wanted either, so it just came around and I started liking the idea of it more and more.”

He’s been preparing for this moment since 2012, when a 27-year-old Fennelly left his job with Ulster Bank to study a masters in sports performance at UL.

He’s been lecturing at Limerick IT’s Thurles campus in sports science since 2014 where his current modules include sports nutrition, coaching and injuries.

michael-fennelly-with-jamie-barron Michael Fennelly in action against Jamie Barron during his playing days. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Fennelly’s thirst for knowledge was evident when he took up a three-month internship with AFL side Sydney Swans in December 2013. Last season he worked under Cian O’Neill as performance coach with the Kildare footballers.

He is also a business partner with Roscommon football boss Anthony Cunningham. In 2016 the pair established Coachfinder – a company that provides an extensive database of qualified coaches for clubs and counties. They also deliver leadership workshops to companies in the corporate world.

Around 2015, Fennelly started to taking notes around coaching and management with a view to eventually taking up a sideline role.

“It’s something I’ve been looking at for the last four or five years, observing obviously Brian Cody, obviously we had Henry Shefflin in our club, but it’s something I’ve always been looking at,” he explained.

I have a book at home and I’m constantly taking down notes and reading things. When I was 30, I was reading stuff on management and coaching and I had to stop myself because I was a player that time.

“I had to focus on myself as a player and get back to making sure I was performing at my best instead of looking at the whole coaching and managerial side of things.”

But Fennelly is keen to stress that he’s his own man. While he will certainly draw on his experiences of working under Cody, Fennelly has plenty of other strings to his bow.

“Probably the best manager of all time. I’m not Brian Cody and I don’t want to be like Brian Cody, but a lot of things he did I would have obviously observed and taken in and wondered why he did this or that.

 

michael-fennelly-and-brian-cody Fennelly shakes hands with Brian Cody after the 2016 Leinster final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It was innate, I was always looking at that and those things whereas other players wouldn’t have looked at that at all. It’s probably a passion I’ve always had. My father was a manager as well, he was a coach and I would have had him when I was younger as well so there was always that managerial head in the family.”

The appointment of Fennelly provided a much-needed boost to Offaly hurling circles but the hard work starts now as he bids to drag the county off the floor.

Having operated under one of hurling’s greatest minds in Cody for his entire Kilkenny career, it’s no surprise Fennelly is following former Cats team-mates David Herity and Eddie Brennan into inter-county management.

Fennelly captained Kilkenny to the four-in-a-row in 2009, won Hurler of the Year in 2011 and will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest midfielders the game has seen.

michael-fennelly-celebrates-a-late-score Fennelly celebrates a score during his playing days. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He’ll have to draw on all his experience to rebuild the confidence of the Offaly players.

“For whatever reason things have gone obviously a bit downhill over the last couple of years but I think there’s still a good cohort in there. There’s massive respect from Kilkenny people about Offaly and the brand of hurling that they play.”

The early appointment of Fennelly means he’ll have time to observe the knock-out stages of the Offaly SHC, while he has access to the county board’s extensive library of video footage from the games earlier this season.

“I’m going to be sitting at home a good bit watching these games as well as being up Sunday at one of the games. I’ll be up and down, you’ve the U20 championship as well in October, might keep an eye on that as well.

“The more knowledge I get the better and the more I get to see these players the better. So yeah there’s a lot of video watching or analysis to do for me over the coming weeks.”

The only way is up.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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